Sunderland took on Port Vale in the PJ (Pointless Job or Papa John’s? You decide) Trophy and, in a sort of game of two halves, deservedly progressed for more free pizza. Aiden O’Brien’s goal was the only one in a first half that saw the vast majority of the game played in the opposition’s half, and exactly none of it in our penalty area. While the opposition had a much better, although still pretty toothless, second period that was disrupted by loads of substitutions we had to wait until deep into added time for sub McGeady’s penalty to seal our quarter final place.
As with a few others, I suspect, I was nearly caught out by the 6pm kick-off as I’d forgotten to write the time on the calendar, but thankfully discovered my mistake with a shade over an hour to spare. …and half an hour later discovered that it was at home rather than in the Potteries. All of which is a sad indictment of my attitude to football this season, under the current restrictions. Whatever you think of the competition, it’s a chance for the (still new) manager to find out more about his players, and a chance for the club to get to Wembley. Having said that, as we’re Sunderland, we’ll probably do that and win in a season when the final will almost certainly be played behind closed doors. Hardly worth putting the leccy on at a great big place like that, is it? Mind, as we’re Sunderland, we’re equally likely to be overcome by whoever we come up against. With that opportunity to find out more about his players, and with Burge nursing Saturday’s shiner, we lined up:
Power © Willis Wright McFadzean
Gooch Neil Scowen Embleton
…and on the bench: Patterson, Dobson, Wyke, Diamond, Leadbitter, McGeady, and Younger.
At least that’s how thought they’d line up, what with Power actually looking better at right back than he had in midfield. I reckoned that Maguire and O’Brien could well provide the mobility we’ve been lacking up front, despite the latter having done precious little since arriving on Wearside to merit selection. Anyway, by the time I’d sorted out my stream for the game (entirely my fault) we were five minutes in, and merrily attacking the Roker End through Neil and O’Brien, ending with a foul on Embleton – that was inside the box but the free was given just outside the corner of it on the right. Maguire dummied, Embleton shot, and Gooch almost got across to touch it in as it curled into the keeper’s arms at the front post. With Danny and Frankie’s commentary confirming we’d started brightly, Conlon was booked for pulling Maguire on halfway – a pretty stupid booking, to be honest, and one which won us a free that kept Vale pinned back in the South West corner for a while, until Maguire’s cross fell a bit short.
We settled into a pattern with two holding (Scowen and Neil), two further forward (Embleton and Gooch), and two right up front, which was interesting. O’Brien swung in a cross from the left, with Maguire doing really well to get his left toe onto it, turn, and draw a good save for the first corner on 11 minutes – with Wright getting the header down from Maguire’s dead-ball and the keeper making a bit of a hash as Gooch’s boot went a bit high and a free was awarded to the visitors. We were looking a lot more interested than the Valiants and playing the game almost exclusively in their half, with Power sprinting forward and crossing to the near post – but a defender put it behind for a corner on our right, which Embleton put to the back post and Vale got to first.
Willis clashed heads with an opponent but quickly recovered and we built another attack, with McFadzean crossing to Power at the far post, but the header, under pressure, was over the top as we approached 18 minutes played. Vale brought on Montano for Hurst, who’d been sitting down for a while and looking uncomfortable for even longer. After Gooch’s pass was intercepted, we won it back returned it to the American, who picked a lovely pass to O’Brien, running into the box, and he rolled it firmly, left footed- across the keeper and inside the far post on 21 minutes. Very nice finish, Aiden, and a nicely worked goal which was no more than we deserved. Neil then ran on to Power’s pass after Embleton had found his captain and won a corner on the right which Embleton took and saw two defenders go for – another corner, which we took short and overcomplicated the passing, losing the ball in the box.
Gooch flicked one cleverly through his own legs to send Embleton into the box, but there was no target in the box and his attempt to get it back to Gooch was intercepted. We tried a few ambitious passed forward, particularly down the right as we completely dominated things, and won a couple more corners on that side, the second getting back to Embleton whose low shot hit a combination of the keeper and Gooch and went up onto the bar and away. This was in a period when we looked like adding a second goal, with some neat passing and incisive running, and Vale looking like they’d get nowhere with the way they were set up – and it nearly came after a lovely move down the left when McFadzean’s effort won us our seventh corner, on our right - which was put behind for our eight, on the left. Gooch showed great patience to put his man on his arse and dink in a cross, and O’Brien’s overhead kick was collected up by the keeper against the bar.
It was nice to see that we were maintaining a decent pace about our play, and most of that in a southerly direction, meaning that Vale had a lot of defending to do. Embleton and Neil swapped passes to get into the box on the left, but his shot was a foot over the top on 42, then Power was away down the right again, and when Scowen took Maguire’s pass he rolled what looked like a clever ball into the box, but nobody was there to tap it in. Maguire then waited too long for the ball to arrive at his feet out on the right, allowing Montano to run up the field, and fouled him just in our half. Needless to say, the ball ended up a goal kick as the visitors once again showed they weren’t really switched on, and the two added minutes were announced. In previous game, we’ve buggered things up at this stage to let the opposition back into it, but it was Gooch who nearly scored next, almost doubling our lead with a shot from distance.
One up at the break, and I honestly don’t think Vale had been in our box, with the only criticism being than we’d just scored the once. While we’d not been peppering the visitors’ goal with shots, their keeper had been called on to make a fair few saves and we’d been close on a number of occasions. I expect that our manager would have been a happy chappy, but would be wanting a lot more than one goal in return for that amount of possession – it only takes a second for the opposition to score, and we are Sunderland, after all. Mind, the other team would need to actually have an attack for that to happen (but we are Sunderland…), and if they don’t do that, they’re out of the competition and will have to pay full price for their pizzas.
One change at the break for us, with Leadbitter on for Neil – which was a bit of a surprise. Perhaps that knock that young Dan took a few minutes before the break was the reason, but it was a straight swap and Grant knows his business. A short pass by Willis (of the hospital variety) meant a good tackle was required of Power, which he produced - and won the throw. We tried and failed to dink it over the top to Embleton, then had an attack down the right thwarted by a decent challenge on Maguire – and Port Vale attacked, getting it over to our left and forcing a loose clearance by Matthews. Embo and O’Brien combined to find Gooch, and he got it to Maguire, whose cut-back was sliced against the post by Whitehead before they hoofed it clear. That would have knocked the stuffing out of them.
O’Brien was soon away, after a nice spot of passing gave Leadbitter the opportunity float the ball over the top, and he did well to keep it in and turn to find Gooch, whose shot from the edge of the box was blocked, then McFadzean was booked after getting vexed when his pass fell short of its target. While they were down to ten men after Whitehead went off hurt, we conceded a free on the corner of the box, which they shot wide. O’Brien did well to control a long ball forward, rolling it to Gooch, who shot when Embo was free on the right, and won a corner courtesy of a deflection. Maguire took it and the next when it was taken of O’Brien’s toes, but Vale got it away. Another corner came after we couldn’t find space for a shot despite so many players in the box and had to pass it around to work the opening, but it (our 13th) was again cleared. Embleton and Gooch combined well to find McFadzean, but the cross was sloppy and easy for the keeper as we passed the hour mark. I think Port Vale brought on a sub, or possibly two, but it had got a bit confusing. Matthews had to be alert to take a weird cross/shot from their left at his near post as Vale showed a bit more purpose and we had to defend. Gooch had the ball in the net, but had been called offside. I expect he’s been called worse.
Another attack was broken up and Maguire got it to O’Brien down the left, winning a throw which we got over to the right, but Maguire’s pass to the wing was short and we needed Willis to block a back-post header after a break and cross. The visitors had certainly upped their game (not difficult) and were actually looking a bit threatening, but we were next to show, winning a corner when O’Brien held it up and got it to Maguire’s was knocked over the top.
Wyke, McGeady, and Younger came on with twenty to go as Johnson looked to liven things up (do they just make up how many subs you can have these days?), with Maguire, Willis, and Gooch going off. Port Vale helped keep things confusing by bringing on three at the same time. Eventually, things restarted with a Vale throw up on their left, which we managed to win and get up the pitch. McGeady’s first contribution was a fine cross to Wyke’s head, which the keeper did well to parry> the corner count must have been at records levels by now, with Geads now on duty on the left. Play stopped on 75 when Younger clashed heads with their man and the Vale fella came off much worse. Presumably there’ll be enough subs to replace him, but he stayed on and instead we brought on Diamond for Embleton. More shirts to wash, and, while it both rests players and gives others valuable time on the field, it doesn’t half break up the fluidity of the play. Needless to say, we won a corner, from which McGeady almost did a Nyron, playing it back nearly to halfway to try something different. Leadbitter’s free from the left angle of the box looked straightforward for the keeper, but he must have had a bet on the number of corners, so he punched it over the bar and caught the next one with ten to go. Ten minutes, and only one goal in it is a very dangerous position for Sunderland to be in. Another McGeady run and cross couldn’t find a stripy shirt, and a chance to seal the win was gone. A foul on Diamond with five to go gave us another chance, thirty yards out on the right and Leadbitter’s ball in was knocked up and over the line for a goal kick. Another burst by McGeady, showing impressive pace for an oldie, let him find Diamond, whose shot was, of course, out behind for a corner –which Wright shot over the top.
There was a nervous moment when Wright tangled with his man on the edge of the box, but the ref waved on and we won a free when McGeady was fouled in our own half. He was up to stop the next Vale attack at the expense of a throw, but we won the ball and tried to build something as six minutes added time were announced. Haway, Lads, dinnet knack this one up. Power ran on to Leadbitter’s ball over the fullback, and his hooked cross was knocked away from Wyke - which seems to be the standard outcome to a ball in to big Chas these day, unfortunately. It nearly went all wrong on 93 when they broke into the box from the left and flashed a shot across the face of the goal. Haway, Lads, dinnet….
Diamond robbed their man on the right corner flag, darted into the box and got it to Wyke a couple of yards out, but he didn’t control it, didn’t turn, and didn’t shoot – and therefore didn’t score. Not to worry, as the ball came back up the field, and we Diamond once again darted into the box and glided past the keeper to his right, only for that keeper to grab his ankle. Up step McGeady to fire the penalty right-footed a yard off the deck, in off the keeper’s right hand for 2-0, and the whistle went before anything meaningful could happen. When I say “in off the keeper’s right hand” I mean the keeper got a touch but was never going to stop it.
2-0 was about right for the balance of play, but that score-line should have been arrived at long before the 45th minute, never mind the 95th, with the story of the game being basically us getting into decent positions but not scoring. We dominated the first half to an embarrassing extent, and while Port Vale had a better second half, they still weren’t much of a threat. They probably don’t like pizza anyway
Man of the Match? O’Brien’s best game for us by far – not that he had to improve much to achieve that, but he showed that he’s better at being a genuine forward that trying to be another McGeady. Speaking of whom, the other Aiden rolled back the years and put in a really god second half. Neil had a good first half, and Diamond a good second, while Power might find himself staying at right back. Also deserving a mention for brightening my evening is Billy Sharp of Sheffield United - if only because the announcement of him as the scorer meant that Jack Rodwell hadn’t done the deed.
OK, for the goal and just to make me eat my pre-match words, O’Brien gets it.